I’ve been a UX designer for over 5 years now, and one of my favorite parts of the job is when I get to put my headphones on and sink my teeth into a juicy design problem. I didn’t want to give this up, and nor should you have to when becoming a manager.
Although you will undoubtedly take on more responsibility as a manager and have less time in your schedule, there’s no reason why you need to give up doing the work that made you excited about this profession in the first place!
I’d recommend you block off time throughout the week to do deliberate heads down, uninterrupted creative work. Hold yourself accountable to using this time (I cannot stress this enough). In other words, don’t let others schedule meetings over it or use it to check email. That stuff can wait.
Personally, this is how I recharge, stay excited about my job, and keep my design chops sharp. By staying current, I’m able to better coach my team members and relate to them. In addition, it’s easier to help team members estimate how long certain tasks should take and identify inefficiencies in our design process. So many benefits!
Designers become stronger managers when they’re still involved in design and doing creative work. If you’re a new manager, make this a part of your job.
When I was a new manager, I didn’t have control over my calendar. Many of my days had at least 5 to 6 hours of meetings and I attempted to spin too many plates at once. I noticed this wasn’t unique to just me — many other manager’s schedules were the same way. In other words, their calendars looked like a super packed Tetris puzzle. I just thought having a busy schedule was an unavoidable part of being a manager.
It also felt like there was some secret competition or badge of honor for the person with the busiest schedule. Gross.
As it turns out, an over-packed schedule has the tendency to give you a false sense of importance and productivity. Let’s be honest, how much actual work really gets done in those meetings? More importantly, it sets a bad example for your team members and gives off the impression you’re too busy for them.
Good managers have control over their calendars and are very intentional with how they choose to spend their time.
Fortunately, over the years I’ve learned to really scrutinize where my time goes. Before getting involved in something, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need to be at this meeting, or can someone send me an update?” or “Does they need me for this project? Or could this be a good growth opportunity for someone else?” Sure, it takes slightly more time effort to pause and ask these questions when you get a request, but your future self will thank you for it.
There’s no doubt you’ll be bombarded by countless tasks, projects, and initiatives. Trust me, there will always be more work to do! This is a difficult area I’m still working on getting better at each day. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what deserves your attention, and, as a manager, your team members should be one of your top priorities. It’s important to make the time to help them grow and focus on what matters most. If that still doesn’t hit home for you, at the very least understand that Outlook Tetris sucks. Nobody enjoys the challenge of trying to squeeze a 30 min meeting into a completely overbooked calendar!
I had been working as a UX designer on the same product — a product I was very passionate about — for over two years. I did my best to embed myself in key projects and eventually led the charge for a major site-wide redesign.
I remember how awesome it felt to get to play such a key role in a large and high-profile project. It felt so good to attach my name to something bigger than myself and be recognized for my efforts.
With an added boost of confidence, I continued to chug along and embed myself in many other future projects. Times were good! I was happy and felt like I was really making a contribution to my team and product.
Then things changed…
After becoming a manager, suddenly I had weekly check-ins with team members, quarterly performance reviews, extra team lead meetings to attend, and occasional administrative issues to deal with that all seemed to “get in the way” of my contributions (i.e. design work) to the team.
It was like I was being pulled in multiple directions, and it seemed like I didn’t have as much to show for myself given the time I was putting in. I started to feel like time spent not designing was less valuable than time spent doing managerial tasks; such as making extra time to help a team member with a problem, or figuring out how to best deliver feedback.
I was frustrated.
It took a while, but after quite some time I underwent a mental shift. It became clear to me that as a manager, the metrics I was using to measure my success and impact — number of designs I was individually a part of — were no longer accurate or serving me well.
As good as it feels to have your name on something, I realized I could have a much bigger impact on my team, product, and company, by coaching up newer folks to effectively replace me. When it came time to do another major redesign for our product, I had one of our new designers take on the challenge (even though I really really wanted it!) and she was able to turn it into a career-defining moment that really boosted her confidence and design skills. Meanwhile, I was able to hone my skills in other areas that I was trying to grow in. Win win!
There’s certainly gratification in having your name on a successful project, but you should also take pride in simply knowing you positively impacted the outcome; even if your name isn’t associated with the success in any way. The impact could be planting the seed for an idea, coaching someone through a design roadblock, or just listening to the frustrations of a team member.
A good manager is humble and is able to step out of the way to let others shine. This doesn’t mean you need to be a martyr and never take a cool project for yourself — as I mentioned above, it’s important to remember what made you excited about this profession in the first place. You get to have some fun too! But assuming you’re looking to make a bigger impact, there’s amazing potential when you look outside yourself.
I challenge you to create your replacement. Coach others to do what you do — but better. That way you can focus on the next big thing. After all, that’s how teams grow!
If you’ve gotten this far, you might be thinking… “Yeah, I get what you’re saying, and I want to ‘move up in the ranks’ so-to-speak, but I just don’t think I’ll enjoy managing people.”
Guess what? That’s totally okay!
Nobody should feel like they have to take a managerial position in order to grow or “move up” at their company. In the end, success at your job comes down to your level of influence, and the managerial track should just be one of the many ways you can grow your circle of influence.
Trust me, I’ve been there. Feeling like you hit a growth plateau sucks. But the way I got unstuck was by taking full ownership over my own growth. Nobody is going to hand you influence — that’s something you need to define and create for yourself . If you’re not sure how else you can grow in your current position, I encourage you to think outside of yourself.
The ironic thing is that the managerial principles and questions I mentioned above don’t apply to just managers! Ask yourself, “What’s a skill I’m really good at that could benefit others?”, or “How can I train others to do what I do so I can focus on the next big thing?”, or “What’s something my team doesn’t have now that, if I built it, could make a big impact?”
At the end of the day, we’re most happy when we feel like we’re contributing to something larger than ourselves. Make that your goal. How you get there is something only you can decide for yourself.